A Different Kind of Thai Sex Bar

Bar manager Ruchaneekon U-para, or Lek, middle.

When the words “bar” and “sex” are put together in Thailand, one doesn’t usually think about progressive labor relations or stuff like profit sharing. But in at least one small corner of the country’s huge sex industry, a few women are trying to get a better deal for themselves out of giving pleasure for money.

At the small Can Do bar in the northern city of Chiang Mai, sex workers are using their brains as well as their bodies in an experiment aimed at tackling exploitation. The bar is owned and managed by a collective of women from the Empower Foundation, a support group for sex workers known for its “sex positive” stance on prostitution.

The country’s first so called experitainment bar aims to provide working girls with a safe and fair working environment.

The bar, which complies fully with Thai labor laws, has just celebrated its first birthday and is proving successful on both “a political and an economic level,” said Liz Hilton, who works with Empower. The bar has won acceptance, Hilton says, for providing decent working conditions for the women who work there.

“The women who came up with the idea and started putting it together had been working for many years and never had good conditions,” she said.

Now that has changed. Bar manager Ruchaneekon U-para, or Lek, says she is happy in the job because of the “freedom and good money” it offers her. The 36-year-old, who has two daughters, has been a prostitute for five years.

Before sex work, she said, she worked long hours in a beauty salon for a small salary. Working in bars has given her the freedom to do other things, and the money to pay for her daughters’ schooling, although she hasn’t always enjoyed such comfortable working conditions.

Estimates of how many prostitutes there are in Thailand range from around 150,000 to a whopping two million, out of a population of 65 million. The figures are difficult to calculate because many prostitutes work part-time or only occasionally, and move around the country. However, few dispute that prostitution is big business, or that with it come social evils such as trafficking in women and children. Go-go bars and hostess bars catering mainly to Western men are only the tip of the iceberg, but are the most visible part of the industry to foreigners.

The majority of women working in these bars face unfair and, in some cases, degrading conditions, with long hours and few days off. Often, they must persuade customers to buy them a certain number of “lady’s drinks” to make money for the bar, or meet a quota of “bar fines” paid by customers wanting to take the women to bed. They may be pressured to sleep with customers, and if they don’t, their salaries may be cut.

But in a country where a waitress may make between 4,000 and 6,000 baht a month and a prostitute can make that amount in two or three nights, there is no shortage of women attracted to the sex industry. Many have limited educations and few other opportunities.

The Empower Foundation as its name suggests – aims to educate sex workers and it treats their jobs with dignity. The Can Do bar is one of many projects it runs in different parts of the country. It opened last year after around 50 sex workers – including migrants from neighbouring countries such as Burma, Laos and Cambodia contributed to a community fund. They each bought a share in the bar for between 1,000 baht and 50,000 baht, together raising a total of one million baht, or around $31,000.

This was used to rent and renovate a three-story building which houses the bar downstairs. On upper floors are a meeting room and an information room for staff and visitors, with books and reports on prostitution and safe sex in Thai and English. There is also a classroom where migrant workers and those from the region’s hill tribes can study Thai.

The bar employs three permanent, full-time members of staff, including Lek. Other sex workers – whether shareholders or not can also register as staff and join the government’s social security scheme.

Hilton says workers in bars and other entertainment places are not usually covered by Thai labour laws, which are strictly enforced at Can Do.

The staff members work a maximum of eight hours a night, with a one-hour break, and have one day off a week — in other bars women get only two days off a month as a rule. They are also entitled to paid sick leave and 10 paid holidays a year, plus 13 public holidays.

If the women working in the bar wish to leave with a customer, that is considered a private arrangement between them, with safe sex strongly encouraged and free condoms and lubricant provided by the bar.

Unlike in virtually every other bar, the women are encouraged not to drink alcohol. “We need to save our bodies for when we go out with customers,” says Lek, matter-of-factly. “When we are drinking, we cannot service customers.”

Workers, including ladies who do part-time shifts, receive a commission of 30 baht on each drink bought for them.

Lek says between five and 10 women usually work at the bar each night, dancing, singing karaoke and talking to customers. The number of visitors fluctuates – in the tourist season, the bar is often very busy. During the low season, however, it receives fewer visitors and only opens on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Not surprising Hilton says the bar is popular with staff from NGOs, who come to study how it works and the conditions it offers its workers. The walls are covered with messages of support from visitors. “I love you more than I can pay,” reads one.

Sai Pilachan, 24, and Arya Ma-yut, 22 work together at Can Do. Sai, a founding member of the bar, says she enjoys working there because it is fun, it gives her freedom, and it supports the workers when they are sick.

Sai has been a sex worker for about four years, and says the job allows her to support her family. They have no problem with what she does for a living, she says, but they don’t talk about it much. Sai, whose first language is Akha, the hill tribe the sisters belong to, also works as a volunteer Thai teacher, helping foreign and hill-tribe workers at the bar. Her sister Arya says she also enjoys working there as it’s “sanuk” (fun).

Lek says she and the other women are proud to be sex workers, and proud to work in the bar. “We don’t care what people say,” she said. “This is my life. We are not shy. We don’t care.”